What the University of Utah continues to get wrong with campus policing, according to a new audit

More than three years after Lauren McCluskey’s murder on campus, state auditors say the school continues to leave students at risk due to a lack of communication and accurate reporting on safety.

More than three years after student-athlete Lauren McCluskey’s murder exposed widespread policing failures at the University of Utah, state auditors say many of the same issues continue to plague the school.

Departments on campus are still not communicating with U. police, with a clear procedure still not in place. The university’s hospital is not properly reporting crimes — including sexual assaults. And, the audit states, it’s putting students and the public at continued risk.

In a recent case that echoes an exact problem uncovered by investigators in McCluskey’s case, a student living in the dorms at the U. reported that a roommate had threatened them with a weapon. The student reported that to housing officials. But campus police were not told about the threat until 24 hours later.

When police did respond, the audit notes, they uncovered “additional, highly concerning criminal behavior beyond the initial allegation.” And police arrested the roommate. But, the audit says, not contacting them immediately left the student in a dangerous situation that could have quickly escalated and put their life at danger.

The auditors conclude that the U. has not done enough to address “certain elements” like that, which in McCluskey’s case led to her death after repeated concerns were ignored. And there’s the real possibility for another catastrophe like that.

“The consequences of getting it wrong can be significant,” said audit supervisor Jake Dinsdale during a hearing on the audit with lawmakers Wednesday. “This is something that definitely needs to be corrected.”

The audit team from the Utah Office of the Legislative Auditor General was originally tasked by state leaders with looking into whether campus police departments at public colleges across the state should be dissolved.

That’s a question that has come up several times in recent years, including after McCluskey’s murder and the recent death of an international student in a case involving domestic violence. But it has also arisen after repeated sexual assaults at Utah State University despite students reporting the same perpetrator, as well as after the more recent recording of the now-former USU police chief making inappropriate comments about assault to football players.

(There has been concern, too, with how sexual assaults were handled at Brigham Young University and calls to decertify the force there, though that is a private school and not in the purview of this audit.)

The jarring 70-page report released Wednesday stops short of recommending that campus policing duties be transferred instead to city or county law enforcement agencies, saying it’s a complicated and potentially costly decision. But it does confirm that safety problems at colleges and universities across the Utah System of Higher Education have persisted after numerous warnings and reports, particularly singling out the U. And it calls for each department to be thoroughly reviewed.

Auditors discovered that all but one of the eight public institutions here, Southern Utah University, had failed to properly report crimes in annual reports. Overall, they discovered 141 reporting errors.

The school that had the most mistakes, Dixie State University, accounted for 73 of those. The U. had six errors, not counting missing reports from the hospital.

U. Chief Safety Officer Keith Squires responded with a statement Wednesday.

“While the University of Utah continues to invest in safety enhancements and innovations,” he said, “this analysis is a timely reminder of how important it is to regularly review and improve our safety operations on campus.”

Devon Cantwell, who has led campus safety activism at the U. with the group UnsafeU formed after McCluskey’s death and also worked on reform efforts statewide with lawmakers, said the issues identified in the report are deeply concerning and deserve immediate attention.

“Many findings here should raise alarms,” she said, “and I hope that legislators in the coming cycles read this report, identify places that the state can put more accountability and transparency pressure on institutions, and pass legislation to do so.”

These are the major findings in the report:

The University of Utah continues to blunder with police communication

The audit spends several pages detailing concerns with the communication to U. police and attitudes toward working with the department after previous mistakes. And that has potential serious effects.

“We found instances where delayed reporting to University of Utah police negatively impacted public safety because of the missed opportunity for a more timely assessment and response,” the audit states.

It points to the threat from the roommate with a weapon in late 2021, as well as a likely hate crime in the dorms that also wasn’t reported to campus police until months later, after a student posted about it on social media last fall.

In that case, a student told housing officials that she came back to her room to find what appeared to be feces wiped on the door. Housing staff moved her into a new dorm but never told police. There was no formal investigation until after the evidence had been cleaned off. As such, officers never located a perpetrator.

There was also an incident in 2019, according to the audit, where a student allegedly engaged in “criminal lewd behavior” during a class. The other students reported it to the associate professor, who told four different entities on campus. But none of those told the police until at least two weeks later.

The audit says: “Documents show that once university police heard of the case and responded, they were able to conduct a thorough investigation and resolve the situation.”

The lack of communication between departments was a serious issue also highlighted in the McCluskey case.

Lauren McCluskey, 21, reported to police several times about her concerns about a man she had briefly dated. But she was not taken seriously. Neither were reports her roommates provided to housing officials about the man having a gun. Those were never forwarded to campus officers.

McCluskey was later shot and killed by that man, Melvin Rowland, outside her dorm in October 2018.

An independent review that looked into the failures in how officers handled her case — with one of the reviewers being Keith Squires, who now leads safety efforts at the U. — was quoted by the audit Wednesday, which repeats that the same problems are continuing now. The auditors add anew: “The U of U should address its continued reporting deficiencies.”

The audit team notes that some of the issues stem from a perceived lack of trust in the U.’s campus police, based on how McCluskey’s case was handled. They believe the issue is most prominent with housing officials.

They also say part of the problem comes from “the university’s complicated and, at times, contradictory policies and procedures for crime reporting.”

In one policy manual, the school states that campus authorities who learn of an alleged or actual crime should report it immediately to police. But in an annual police report, the school says anyone who knows of a crime can take one of 14 pathways for reporting the information. One of those is University Safety, which is not the same as University Police.

The auditors note it is important for students to have multiple options for reporting, but they say staff are obligated to share information with police when there is a present danger. The team says that not having a clear policy for them has created confusion.

In a separate independent audit that the U. commissioned on racism in campus housing after the incidents were posted about on social media, the team there also notes “a lack of uniform office policies informing staff when they are required to notify another university office of an incident.”

They say there’s an attitude of reluctance among housing staff to refer an incident to police, too.

But the U. reviewers state those systems have since been fixed to work better. More than 1,600 reports were reviewed, and less than 1% were found to have not been forwarded on appropriately to police.

The housing office on campus has hired an assistant director to help with communication and reviewing incidents. And it has streamlined communication, as well as updated training on diversity and equity for student leaders.

Recommendation: The auditors believe that work needs to be done to get departments to collaborate at the U. They also say a clear policy needs to guide when departments report to police. They recommend the U. freshly assess its policing services.

The University of Utah Hospital is failing to report crimes

Schools that receive federal funding must annually compile and publish a Clery report, documenting certain crimes that occur on or near campus; the reports primarily include the number of sexual assaults at a university.

Dinsdale, the auditor, said his staff found that “both the hospital and community clinics at the U.” have been failing to report their crime statistics in those annual reports.

“Some of these deficiencies pose a risk to general campus safety,” the audit notes, “and some represent significant potential liability in the form of reviews and fines from the U.S. Department of Education.”

The Department of Education can fine schools up to nearly $60,000 per violation in its Clery report.

Recommendation: The hospital’s administration told auditors it would correct the issues and streamline reporting. The auditors say that needs to happen immediately.

Other schools are failing on Clery reporting, too

The auditors compared the crimes reported by each of the eight public colleges in their Clery reports with what they also reported in the online Campus Safety and Security Data Analysis Cutting Tool that most campuses use.

“Each mismatch between the two reporting platforms is counted as a deficiency that could result in a fine,” the auditors notes.

An error could mean a number was transposed. Or it could mean a crime was not reported in the Clery numbers.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

They found 141 errors systemwide, not counting Southern Utah University, where there were no issues found.

Dixie State, where 73 errors were discovered from between 2016 and 2019, responded to the audit with a statement. It said the school was “making a good faith effort to track and report the statistics during the audit period.” It has also since retained a consultant to improve reporting in the future.

Recommendation: The auditors recommend that USHE provide additional training for all college administrators on Clery compliance.

Schools are also failing to uphold state reporting requirements

The Utah System of Higher Education was tasked in a 2020 law with reporting on safety across the eight institutions. Auditors say that “fell short of statutory requirements.”

Largely, USHE didn’t answer many of the questions that lawmakers had required.

They also call on each college to follow a 2021 law that required them to produce a state-level report breaking down crimes in student housing each year in October. This last fall, the first required report, only four of the eight schools created the compilation: the U., Utah Valley University, Utah State University and Dixie State University.

And the U. did so only after Cantwell said she submitted a public records request for the information. (Cantwell helped work on the law requiring the reports, alongside retiring Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay.)

“Campuses had nearly eight months to try to disaggregate their data or to ask for technical assistance in doing so,” she said. “If campuses don’t have the technical capacity to sort this data, this is absolutely an area where USHE should step in to provide support.”

But it’s not acceptable, she said, to wait to provide the data for another year.

Recommendation: The auditors say colleges need to compile the required data in a timely manner. And they advise USHE to do a more thorough study as originally requested.

Questions over whether contracting with outside agencies would help

The auditors state in their report that they don’t believe there is a “definitive advantage” to schools dropping their own campus police departments and contracting with outside agencies instead. Universities would still be liable with upholding the federal laws with Clery and Title IX, and cost could become prohibitive.

Across Utah, seven of the eight public colleges and universities have their own police forces.

Salt Lake Community College is the only one that does not. It pays for a contract with Utah Highway Patrol to provide 24/7 coverage for the four largest of its 10 campuses, according to the audit. It has done so for 20 years, and it has two administrators who oversee those security efforts.

The auditors note that most colleges across the country — 98% — have their own police forces, so Utah’s numbers are standard. “Whether or not that’s the way it should be done, that’s how everyone is doing it,” Dinsdale said.

For fiscal year 2020, it cost a combined $28.6 million, including the U.’s hospital, to provide police and security services across the eight schools. That is up from $16.3 million in 2016.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The U., without the hospital, has the highest annual costs at about $7 million per year for public safety services. It has 33,000 students.

SLCC was second highest at $2.79 million. It has about 27,000 students but no on-campus housing like the U.

Auditors pointed to SLCC’s expenses to contract out for services, though, as the highest of the eight schools when broken down by percentage of total operating costs. It is 1.34% of the school’s total budget. Every other school was below 1%.

By comparison, Utah State University in Logan was paying about half the cost of SLCC — $1.85 million — for the same number of students and on-campus dorms. “To do that through a contract would likely be more expensive,” Dinsdale said.

Either a college would get the same services for more money, he noted, by signing up with an outside agency. Or, if it wanted to pay less or the same amount, a college would get less services for student safety.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Recommendation: Each college should weigh what services they require and the unique needs of their campuses to determine if contracting with an outside agency would be better.

Most college police departments in the state are not accredited

Accreditation is not required of college police departments, but it does give them a set of standards to uphold and frequent reviews on how operations are going.

Utah State and Dixie have finished accreditation through the Utah Chiefs of Police Association. SUU is looking to begin the process later this year. And the U. is working with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

The others are not accredited.

The audit says institutions should look at the process as “a tool to review and improve police operations with the independence and accountability of an outside entity.”

Recommendation: The auditors suggest that USHE make it a systemwide requirements for campus police departments to become accredited.

Lawmakers expect swift action

During the hearing on the audit Wednesday, several legislators asked if the schools were already making corrections, especially questioning the U.’s ongoing issues.

“We’ve had a couple of high profile incidents at our institutions,” said Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City. “This audit highlights some diligent work that needs to be done at all of our campuses. … This is really critical. I don’t want to see an incident like what we’ve had occur again.”

Dinsdale said he’s heard action plans from all of the colleges, as well as USHE to address the problems and review structures.

Dave Woolstenhulme, the commissioner of higher education for Utah, added during the meeting that it is a “top priority” for the system.

He said: “We want students to report and feel good about reporting when a crime occurs on campus.”